"To get to this point now with one game left to play and be in a position to do something special, it makes it that much better," head Coach John Bunting said following the victory.
For two games in a row, the Tar Heel defense held an opponent under 400 yards and also recorded their low mark for yards allowed this season, a record set only last week versus Virginia Tech. It didn't come against an inept offensive team. Wake Forest was third in the ACC coming into this game in total offense, averaging 383 yards per game, and the Heels held them to 335.
As odd as it may sound, this North Carolina victory will go into the win column not because their offense was simply able to overcome a porous defense. Particularly in the first half, the defense was responsible for keeping the Tar Heels in the game.
"Our defense was able to suck it up and play probably our best half of football in the first half," Bunting said, "Which is exciting because I think we can learn from that and get better."
Though the play of the defense in the first half might have been the most consistent effort by the Tar Heels in a half this season, it was in the fourth quarter where the defense may have written their rebuttal to their season-long critics. Wake Forest had tied the score at 24-24 and after a three-and-out the UNC offense had to punt the ball back to the Deacons with 3:28 left on the clock. The Deacons had scored on their last two possessions, mounting scoring drives of 72 yards and 76 yards respectively. All the Deacons had to do was march the ball into field goal range while milking the clock, kick the game winner and send the sold-out home crowd into a frenzy.
Instead, the Tar Heel defense came up huge. Jacoby Watkins dropped Deacon running back Chris Barclay in the open field on third down, forcing the three-and-out and giving the Tar Heel offense a chance to win the game.
As the Tar Heel defense took the field for that possession, what was going through their minds? According to Tar Heel safety Gerald Sensabaugh, the defense told itself, "We got one more chance. To win this football game, we've got to stop them, right here and right now."
From a scheme perspective, the Tar Heel did a good job all day of defending Wake Forest's variety of plays designed to get their wide receivers involved in the running game. The Tar Heels turned in their best performance in the past three seasons in terms of defending the edges of the field. It might have helped that those edges were soggy from heavy rains the previous two days in Winston-Salem, making footing treacherous for the Deacon offense, but nonetheless the Tar Heels didn't get beat often on the boundary.
Perhaps some of this success was due to a good defensive game plan, or good game day tactics, fitting the defensive plays against the Deacon offense. As much as planning or schemes, however, it appeared that the Tar Heel defenders simply executed their defensive assignments with more confidence.
Middle linebacker Doug Justice, who led the Heels with 12 tackles and three tackles-for-loss, offered this explanation of the improving defense: "I think we always had the ability, I just don't think we met our full potential; we still haven't met our full potential, I mean we are still working every week, we work hard in practice every day, and we've got to go out against Duke and play well."
Everyone knew that Wake Forest's offense relies on a lot of misdirection plays. In addition to their usual offensive repertoire, the Tar Heels managed to take a play or two out of the Deacons' playbook.
Turning the tables on the Deacons, the Tar Heels employed several misdirection plays as quarterback Darin Durant found the Tar Heel tight ends open with daylight ahead of them as the Wake defense flowed to what appeared to be the "play side" of the field. Tar Heel tight ends came away with five receptions for 63 yards, which included a two-yard reception to Justin Phillips for a touchdown. All of those receptions were big for the Tar Heels, and may have helped cause some hesitation by the aggressive Deacon defense.
Then there were the usual plays from the multiple formations of the Tar Heel offense. The running backs, often behind terrific blocking both from the offensive line and fullback Madison Hedgecock – who often neutralized Wake Forest's terrific freshman linebacker Jonathan Abbate – did their job well.
Quarterback Darian Durant played a heady game and managed to avoid being flustered when a pass bounced off the hands of Jesse Holley into the hands of Marcus McGruder, who returned it for a touchdown. Durant involved multiple receivers in the game, completing passes to nine different UNC players.
No offensive series was, of course, larger than the last drive. The Tar Heels were in their two-minute offense, designed to bring them into field goal range. With the wind at their backs, the Heels just needed to get the ball within the long range of freshman Connor Barth's strong leg.
The Deacon defense was wary of UNC receiver Wallace Wright, who had been working underneath their safeties effectively, catching four passes on the day for 33 yards. As Wright worked underneath, the Wake safety, Josh Gattis, bit on the play and came off Jesse Holley's stop-and-go route. Durant heaved a 45-yard pass to Holley who cradled the ball in his arms for the winning touchdown.
"I knew I had to catch that one," Holley said. "I had no other choice but to catch it in the end zone and get this one over for the seniors."
Special Teams and Turnover Margin
It used to be that a good game by the UNC special teams meant one where there were not a lot of huge mistakes. There was a mistake or two against Wake Forest, as Mike Mason hit a Wake return man too early giving the Deacons fifteen extra yards, and a couple of poorly executed "squib" kicks gave the Deacons good field position, on one occasion leading directly to a field goal.
The Tar Heel special teams redeemed themselves by pulling off two fake kicks; a fake field goal on a completed pass from Jared Hall to Madison Hedgecock that allowed the Tar Heels to eventually get seven points on the board instead of three, and a fake punt that kept a drive alive as Doug Justice rushed for the first down. If either play had failed, the outcome of the game might have been different.
Turnovers remain something the Tar Heels give, not receive. They were on the minus side of turnover margin again this game (2 to 1), and the few number of turnovers the UNC defense creates remains a continuing problem.
So much of the Tar Heel season remains in the balance next week versus Duke. They will become bowl eligible – with a "feel good" bowl game in Charlotte a real possibility – or not. They will have a winning season, or not. They will revenge a humiliating loss to the Blue Devils last season, or not. They will return the Victory Bell to UNC, or not.
Bunting's name is even being bandied about as "Coach of the Year" in the ACC, and a win against Duke is a must for that to happen. The stretch run of the Tar Heels has placed Bunting solidly in contention for that honor.
For a team picked 10th in the ACC in the preseason, and after the embarrassing losses to Virginia, Louisville, and Utah, the possible rewards of a win against Duke are far beyond what anyone imagined possible. It has felt like a long time since the season finale against Duke had any meaning at all for the Tar Heels, beyond bragging rights and the Victory Bell.
This year, it does.